The Decade Civility Died, and "Civility" Replaced It - We used to talk about how to talk to each other. Now, when someone invokes "civility," they really just want you to shut up.
.....Civility, like free speech generally, is now something we increasingly demand for ourselves and refuse to afford others. Civility means that we get to wish others a merry Christmas whether or not others celebrate it. Civility means that you can refuse service to an LGBT patron of your business, and that she should be politely accepting of that choice. Civility isn't about bridging the divide so much as it is about being treated civilly regardless of our words or actions.
Something fundamental shifted in the discussion after Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Suddenly, the problem was no longer vicious name-calling and incivility on Twitter (Donald Trump had, after all, tethered his own political fortunes to precisely those behaviors). Suddenly "civility" was no longer appropriate material for think tanks and academic conferences seeking to have government work more constructively. Instead, it became a defense for why Trump officials, who had crafted an entire government of cruelty, deserved polite service in restaurants nonetheless. In quick succession, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant for her support of an avowedly anti-LGBTQ administration; Mitch McConnell, Kirstjen Nielsen, and Stephen Miller all faced similar abuse at dining establishments; and just this month Ken Cuccinelli hotfooted his way out of a D.C. bar after being confronted by former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley for his role in family separation at the southern border. And suddenly, in the way it was being deployed in defense of all these people, civility had come to mean being nice to terrible people in public because it hurts their feelings when we do not.
Yes, there are still college seminars to be touted, and public fora to be attended, and strategies to be deployed. But the words have lost all meaning. Civility now has something to do with not talking, as opposed to how we talk. Mitch McConnell recently opined that "civility" is about angry tones, as opposed to corrupt actions, at least in the Senate: "We have plenty of incentive to get angry. But as you may have noticed, I try to stay calm, be respectful and don't get caught up in these intense debates that we have." Part of the reason we stopped speaking about civility, it seems, is that civility is now limited to how we speak. The other part, obviously, is that the same McConnell who doesn't like being shouted down in public derides (in the same speech) "young people, incentivized I think by the faculty actually on college campuses, who don't want to hear anything they may disagree with." So civility ultimately comes down to the thing students owe Mitch McConnell, but that he owes nobody.
And that is the other big reason we stopped talking about civility and spending money on civility and pining for civility after 2016. Because "civility" also became code for capitulation to those who want to destroy us. As Adam Serwer summarized it in this month's Atlantic: "There are two definitions of civility. The first is not being an asshole. The second is 'I can do what I want and you can shut up.' The latter definition currently dominates American political discourse."
In that vein, Joe Biden caused a stir in June when he thought back fondly to a more civil era in politics: Recalling his debates with avowed segregationists like Mississippi's James Eastland, Biden lamented, "At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn't agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today you look at the other side and you're the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don't talk to each other anymore."
The problem of course is that "getting things done" by meeting unabashed racists halfway no longer feels like a win-win, so much as capitulation. Serwer made this point eloquently: "The true threat to America is not an excess of vitriol, but that elites will come together in a consensus that cripples democracy and acquiesces to the dictatorship of a shrinking number of Americans who treat this nation as their exclusive birthright because of their race and religion. This is the false peace of dominance, not the true peace of justice. Until Americans' current dispute over the nature of our republic is settled in favor of the latter, the dispute must continue." In other words, there will be no civility if it means powerful men colluding to harm the powerless—nor should there be.
Neil Gorsuch, whose new book also tackles the issue of civility, starts from the same misconception Biden offered: "Self-governance turns on our treating each other as equals—as persons, with the courtesy and respect each person deserves—even when we vigorously disagree." In a country, and under a Supreme Court, that does not treat citizens as equals, for economic, free speech, voting rights, or civil rights purposes, the demand that we speak to one another as if that were somehow the case, as opposed to a strangled dream, sounds a lot like performance. But probably nobody did more to kill civility than Donald Trump himself, who at a campaign rally last October in Charlotte, North Carolina, soberly intoned that, "everyone will benefit if we can end the politics of personal destruction. … It is time for us to replace the politics of anger and destruction with real debate about the issues." Civility started as a call for listening. Trump has turned it into a demand for silence.
On the evening of his impeachment, the president attacked a dead member of Congress. In response, his widow pointedly asked for a return to "civility." Trump's spokespeople said in his defense that he is simply a "counterpuncher." (Whom he was punching against, given that the subject of his attack is, again, dead, is unclear). Somewhere between Donald Trump's speech and his wife's selective anti-bullying campaign, the irony around demands for civility collapsed in on itself. Civility is no longer something that is achievable, or even useful. When it's sought now, you can be certain it's coming from the powerful asking you to be civil as they take away your rights and destroy lives. And that makes civility—once the promise of listening across difference, now the demand for cowed fealty—more than just a moral punchline. That the call for civil discourse has been weaponized to chide and marginalize the vulnerable makes it an apt metaphor for a decade that started with the faint promise of bipartisan unity and closes with promises of partisan annihilation.